CJL - Christopher J. Lee Architects, Inc.

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29October

Architect Chris Lee of Christopher J. Lee Architects, Inc. is up to challenges big and small


Christopher J. Lee is most inspired by the infinite combination of design solutions available to him as an architect. And his repertoire of Southwest Florida structures is almost as diverse.

Mr. Lee’s seven-member firm handles elaborate commercial building design, like the two-story, 44,500-square-foot Interop Office Building in Fort Myers. They have planned elegant structures such as the Grey Oaks Country Club in Naples, as well as the Lee County YMCA, and an array of surgery centers, condominiums, churches, car dealerships and commercial retail centers.

“Each project has a certain unique element to it,” Mr. Lee said. “There are not set, pre-prescribed solutions to any design problem. We’re artists, we’re technicians, we’re tacticians. But we’re essentially there to solve problems for our clients. We give the solutions in the physical form — architecture is kind of a physical art. To me, that’s what makes architecture interesting.”

His firm won four Lee Building Industry Association Awards this year. It was the first time he had applied for the awards, in the 25 years since Mr. Lee started his own firm in Fort Myers.

Some of the projects come with big money, and demand elaborate structures. But Mr. Lee said he appreciates the challenge of working on a tight budget. First, he thinks about how he’ll make the building function with the look his client wants.

For example, when he planned Dwyer’s Irish Pub in South Fort Myers (soon to re-open as Icabod’s Wicked Good Food & Drink), the concept demanded a specific aesthetic.

“We definitely wanted a facility that spoke to Irish pub,” he said.

His team researched pubs and castles in Ireland to create the unique stone building that stands on U.S. 41. It adapted the European design elements to fit Southwest Florida.

“They don’t translate straight across,” Mr. Lee said.

Finally, there are the constant factors in building — the budget and schedule. Mr. Lee determines if a schedule is realistic. He’ll refuse work before rushing to complete a project.

Then he works out the cost.

“Budget is the overriding factor in any design,” he said. “But I don’t put it as the first item, because within any budget we can be creative and satisfy the client’s objectives.”

Another specialty is redesigning outdated buildings to lend them a more personable feel. In one outdated North Fort Myers strip mall, damaged in Hurricane Charley, Mr. Lee changed the color, form and proportions on a shoestring budget. It has no architectural intricacy — no embellished columns or intricate lattice. But it does have curbside appeal, making it more attractive to tenants.

“Good buildings can evoke certain responses,” he said. “Consciously or unconsciously.”

One of Mr. Lee’s favorite works is the Estero Fire Station. It was designed to fit in at Coconut Point. The same small design elements are repeated throughout the building like a melody. The walls are set at different levels so the overall shape has “movement.” The colors are warm and expressive, befitting Coconut Point’s Mediterranean-style architecture.

Some of Mr. Lee’s current projects, like the North Fort Myers Fire Station No. 1, will focus on green building technology, an industry trend. But the most significant change in architecture since his career began has been computer aided design and drafting. Still, you have to understand how to draw the designs by hand.

“If you don’t understand how to detail in Southwest Florida, the computer is not going to save you,” Mr. Lee said.

He moved to Florida from Ohio when he was 4 years old and grew up on Fort Myers Beach. Mr. Lee graduated from Cypress Lake High School in 1974.

At Florida A&M at Tallahassee, he earned a bachelor’s of science and architectural studies. He was also a walk-on for the football team.

“It was an interesting experience because at the time it was about 95 percent black,” Mr. Lee said. “That was probably the experience of a lifetime.”

He saw some of the prejudices and racial tension of the 1970s first hand, and said he left with a better understanding of people in general.

“Playing football, and interacting with your teammates, you put all that prejudice aside,” Mr. Lee said. “Understanding the unity of the team, how to work together and attain goals and be trusting of each other, regardless of race.”

That sense of teamwork is strong among Mr. Lee’s staff now, which includes his son.

“They feel the same pride of authorship in designing and developing a successful project (as I do.),” he said. “I feel strongly about the personnel I have. When you hire us you really get our entire firm.”

Mr. Lee also spent one year as an intern at an architectural firm in Jacksonville; afterwards, he graduated with a master’s in architecture from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

Fort Myers was his first stop after graduate school and Mr. Lee made a living doing drafting work for a local firm.

Now, most of his business is from word of mouth referrals.

He likes to get up at 6 a.m. three days a week to play in a local pick-up basketball game, but the place you’ll most likely spot him is in the yard.

“To get out on the weekend and work in the yard is good therapy,” he said. “…Not thinking about clients or contracting details.”

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